The most expensive painting in the world

Yesterday, a painting sold for more than $450m in New York.

It was a very good painting. It’s called Salvator Mundi. It was by Leonardo da Vinci.

(You may have heard of him. Never pickled a shark in his life, but otherwise a pretty competent draughtsman.)

It’s the most a piece of art has ever sold for at auction.

And we all know what that means…

I may not know much about art, but I know what I like

Art is a fascinating subject. The relationship between art and money is a particularly interesting thing, because when you combine the two, they highlight each other’s absurdities in a way that few, if any, other forms of transaction do.

Let’s just briefly recap. Salvator Mundi – a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ, in a similar vein to Mona Lisa – has just sold for $450.3m, including about $50m of commission for Christie’s, the auction house.

That makes it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction (maybe other paintings have sold for more privately, but we don’t know, and we don’t think so – apparently a Paul Gauguin might once have gone for $300m).

How can a picture – that you or I can access via the internet for free, right now – be worth nearly half a billion dollars? We could all have a pretty decent replica hanging in our front rooms by the end of the day if we could be bothered to go to a print shop and buy a cheap frame on the way home from work.

So there’s something valuable about owning the work itself, with all its provenance. And, of course, what a stellar provenance it is. It may be the only Leonardo in private hands. Quite a status symbol to own a painting by the man who painted the Mona Lisa.

Yet as with most “discoveries” of this nature, the provenance hasn’t gone entirely undisputed. The picture ended up on the market via Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian fertiliser oligarch who bought it from Yves Bouvier, a Parisian art dealer, for $127m.

Before that, the painting had been owned by a consortium of art dealers who had bought it for just $10,000 in 2005. They had it restored and authenticated, and it was unveiled post-restoration in London’s National Gallery in 2011.

But as The New York Times points out, in reaction to the sale, “some art experts pointed to the painting’s damaged condition and its questionable authenticity”. One notes: “This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”

Now, I’m not an art expert, and I’m sure the matter is relatively settled as far as all this stuff goes (apart from anything else, half a billion dollars creates an awful lot of egg for an awful lot of expert faces if anything were to go wrong). But the point is, without that “backstory” – and without everyone else being willing to believe in it – what’s the picture worth? A lot less.

When money meets art

And what about the art itself? What does the act of buying or selling it mean for the work’s inherent value?

Lots of people who would gush over this painting if it was hanging on the walls of a free-to-access museum like the National Gallery, are now sneering at it because it’s probably ended up as the bauble of a different oligarch.

It’s no doubt now on its way to some awful nouveau-riche mega-yacht, they sigh. There, it’ll end up as a conversation piece for the rich and tasteless, rather than an awe-inspiring, masses-improving testament to the power of faith, religious art, and all the rest of it.

So does the fact that someone is willing and able to pay nearly half a billion dollars for this artwork, in fact cheapen it? In some way lessen its value? When you put a “price” on “priceless”, then yes, I guess you could argue that it does.

But then again, Leonardo painted it in the first place for King Louis XII of France in around 1500. So the painting was originally commissioned by an incredibly wealthy, powerful individual in order to impress upon others the fact that he was wealthy, powerful, and also had an eye for good art. King Charles I owned it for a while too.

So its role hasn’t actually changed at all in five centuries. This painting is still doing the job it was commissioned to do 500 years ago.

Is the painting worth a lot or is money worth very little?

So on the one hand, money makes you think about art, and how we value things, and how the introduction of money itself into the process affects those values.

But art also makes you think about the nature of money more than most transactions too.

Why is that painting worth $450m now? I don’t know what $450m inflation-adjusts back to in 1500, but I reckon King Louis, for all his wealth, didn’t pay that to commission Leonardo.

Sure, it’s a unique item, and arguably by the most significant artist in history. So let’s say that it really, really is the most valuable painting on the planet that’s actually available to purchase right now.

Why $450m?

Could it be something to do with the fact that money has been cheaper than ever before for over a decade now? Could it be something to do with the quantity of money-printing that has gone on across the globe?

Could it be that this represents the pinnacle of our current global misallocation of capital? When some over-exuberant oligarch places so little value on money that he or she is willing to pay many times the previous record price for a painting that in other, less exuberant times, might attract rather less enthusiasm?

I don’t know.

Nice conversation piece, though.

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